The first thing you learn when you read the history of the rivers and navigations of Cambridgeshire is that nothing is quite as it seems. Where rivers now flow there used to be land and where houses now sit there used to be water – the Isle Of Ely does not get its name by mistake! Things have changed so much that in some cases rivers have turned around and now flow in the opposite direction!
In Medieval times the River Great Ouse used to head north after passing the town of Earith. Its path has gone without trace on any ordinary road map but it used to swing east near the town of March to join the original River Cam. The combined waters became The Wellstream which headed north west. Although there are no descriptions to be found of the Wellstreams’ route, my uneducated guess would be that it followed the line of the current border between Cambridge and Norfolk. (For what other reason would the border be so bendy, often doubling back on itself)? The Wellstream ran to Wisbech where it then ran north into The Wash. On a modern map some of this route can still be seen; the old River Cam is the new River Great Ouse and the north half of the Wellstream (in the main) is the Wisbech Canal. The route through Wisbech to The Wash is now the River Nene. This original course of the River Great Ouse, the Aldreth River and parts of the River Cam, were used by the Romans when they built the Car Dyke which ran from Lincoln to Waterbeach (near Cambridge). The Danes also made use of the original River Great Ouse in 1070 when they used it to attack Ely!
1200’s It is thought that during times of flood the people of Earith used to divert the River Great Ouse into the Aldreth River. This would take the River Great Ouse’s water east to Stretham where it could run into the River Cam. From Stretham the rivers Great Ouse and Cam joined forces all the way to The Wellstream. The Aldreth River is now the modern day course of the River Great Ouse and is often known as the Old West River. This seems somewhat strange because it flows eastwards away from the River Great Ouse. However, it originally flowed westwards into the River Great Ouse.
Many years later more changes were made when a new watercourse was created between Littleport and Stowbridge. This diverted the combined rivers Great Ouse and Cam away from The Wellstream and into a small stream which ran into The Wash at Lynn (now King’s Lynn). Over many years The Wellstream and the original course of the River Great Ouse (which had become known as West Water) both silted and became completely unnavigable.
There are few mentions of boats on the River Great Ouse during the Middle Ages. What history there is, indicates that the river was used to carry stone from quarries at Barnack to the great monasteries (such as Bury St. Edmunds) and to Cambridge to help build the growing university. Other items, such as farm produce and manufactured goods, were also carried. Easier proof that the river was used substantially after its diversion to King’s Lynn can be seen by noting the amount of warehouses and the fast growth of that town. “Fleets” (tidal channels) ran through the town allowing boats to deliver “to the door”. However, the flow of the new river course was not controlled at King’s Lynn and the estuary slowly widened until, after a number of centuries, it had taken over much of the surrounding marshland and had become over ½ a mile wide.
The tides from the sea could be felt well into the Cambridgeshire fenland, along the River Great Ouse and its tributaries. This meant boats could sail far inland and reach many otherwise remote towns and villages. When the wind was unfavourable the boats were bow-hauled by gangs of men or boys (horses were less common). The haling-ways (towpaths) were not maintained so hauling was often very difficult and the waterways themselves were also not maintained because they were not under the control of any governing bodies.
As the Middle Ages moved on, so did the waters of the flat Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire fenlands. In fact, much of the countryside was being drowned by great lakes of water and land was becoming more and more scarce.
1600 After many years of petitioning, an Act of Parliament was finally granted allowing “the recovering of many hundred thousand acres of marshes and other grounds subject commonly to surrounding over an area stretching from Cambridgeshire to County Durham”. Many schemes and surveys followed over the next few years and most were heartily encouraged by James I on account of the Crown’s “holdings” in the Fens.
1605 One such scheme (for instance) was led by Lord Chief Justice Popham which resulted in the cutting of Pophams Eau (pronounced like “ear”). This ran from the original River Nene (south of Upwell) to Nordelph. This cut survives today and is marked on good road maps. Such schemes were small in relative terms and did little to help the overall problem of land loss. One of the problems which prevented such schemes from making a big impact was that new drains tended to alter the courses of established navigations. Towns and traders were not prepared to lose important links for the sake of some rich landowner gaining some dry land!
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1618 Sir Clement Edwards and Richard Atkyns made reports on the fenland situation. They called for the setting up of a Commission Of Sewers (drains) but nothing was done and their reports emphasised the differences between drainage and navigation interests.
Meanwhile, a Mr. John Gason of Finchley had been granted authority to make various rivers around the country navigable over a 21 year period.Soon after gaining this authority he sold his rights to the rivers of Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire to Arnold Spencer of Bedfordshire and Thomas Girton of Westminster. Until this time the River Great Ouse was navigable from The Wash at Lynn to Huntingdon but there was growing pressure to continue the navigable route to Bedford.Spencer and Girton teamed up and together they built 6 sluices above Earith, between St. Ives and St. Neots, but Bedford was still a long way off.
1625 Girton withdrew from the partnership and Spencer then (reluctantly) sold out to John Jackson of St. Neots, for £740.
1626 Jackson became the first to charge tolls on the river – 1d per ton, per sluice, between St. Ives and St. Neots.
1627 Toll charges were raised to 1½d but traders on the river felt this was far too high so they appealed to the Justice of the Peace. As a result it was decided that tolls should be increased to 3d!
1628 Feeling confident, Jackson raised his tolls again and once again the traders appealed. This time the result was a reduction to 2½d!!
Arnold Spencer was still concerned with the river and he, together with Bedford Corporation, attempted – but failed – to obtain an Act allowing the river to be made navigable to Bedford. He never gave up trying however, and even spent great amounts of money maintaining and dredging the river.
1630 Below Earith nothing had changed for many years, the low lying land was still becoming more and more flooded. Francis, Earl of Bedford, agreed to drain the area which is now known as the Bedford Level (east of Peterborough in north Cambridgeshire). Doing this was not exactly a great hardship to the Earl as the draining gave him 95,000 acres of reclaimed land.
1634 The men who agreed to drain their land and try to use the marshy fens which were left became known as “Adventurers”. Francis and 13 other Adventurers joined forces to become a corporation. They successfully obtained a charter from Parliament known as the “Lynn Law”. The corporation called in the Dutch drainage expert Cornelius Vermuyden who had recently drained Hatfield Chase (in South Yorkshire) for Charles I. At first the locals were not too keen on Vermuyden – having huge distrust of all foreigners – but the Dutchman was soon able to change their views. He began with 9 major drainage cuts varying in distance from 2 to 21 miles.
1637 Vermuyden completed the most important of his drains, the Bedford River, which ran from Earith to a sluice at Salters Lode. A Commission of Sewers proclaimed Vermuydens’ work to have been completed in accordance with the conditions set out in the Lynn Law. When the Bedford River was created the original River Great Ouse (via March) became completely extinct. The Aldreth (or West) River was turned on its heels between Earith and Stretham to head east and carry the River Great Ouse into the River Cam. From this time on the Cam north of Stretham became the Great Ouse.
1638 Above Earith, Arnold Spencer bought back his 6 sluices from John Jackson and retook control of the upper reaches of the river, continuing to maintain and upgrade it. However, his work cost him a lot more than he ever gained and, sadly, he never quite made it to Bedford though he did reach ½ way – turning Great Barford into something of an inland port. Once the Civil War began it was impossible for Spencer to maintain the river and its condition quickly deteriorated.
Meanwhile, further north, the Commission of Sewers had changed its mind about Vermuydens’ drains and said the work had not sufficiently met with the Lynn Law regulations. King Charles himself (or his officers) took over the project and allotted 40,000 acres to the Adventurers for their land reclamation work. Vermuyden was retained in charge of the work (there was nobody else) but all work was halted when the Civil War began around 1640.
1640’s During the Civil War the Fens deteriorated badly, helped along by people who – as soon as the authorities were out of sight – interfered with the work already done in an attempt to put the land back as it had originally been.
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1649 After the war it took only a short while for interest in draining the Fens to return. Strong objections were made by the towns and ports which the navigations then served but an Act was granted (known as the “Pretended Act”) and William, 5th Earl of Bedford took charge of affairs. Once again it was Vermuyden who was employed to perform the work.
1652 The major parts of Vermuydens’ work were completed. These included the cutting of the Hundred Foot Drain (also called the New Bedford River) which ran absolutely parallel to his original Bedford River, at an average of ½ a mile away to the east. This new drain now took the waters of the River Great Ouse from below Earith to Denver Sluice (near Salters Lode). This diverted the river once again, causing its course around Ely and its tributaries to become almost dry.
1663 A new Act of Parliament gave control of the River Great Ouse in the drained areas back to the Adventurers (or Corporation of the Bedford Level), to whom drainage was very important but navigation meant very little. Boats could only get in and out of the drainage systems when it suited the drainage interests. Boats could be locked out or trapped within for weeks on end while they waited for sluices to be opened. The now almost dry route of the River Great Ouse meant that important towns like Ely could no longer be reached at all. While this caused obvious problems for trade along the river, it also made a big difference to many other places including Cambridge and numerous villages on tributaries of the river.
1655 At this point the River Great Ouse was of little use to anybody along its once popular route from Earith to Denver Sluice. Even below the sluice the river was not maintained and silting threatened the trade of Lynn. All the blame for this was placed at Vermuydens’ door. The traders of Lynn greatly resented the loss of trade from Ely and Cambridge and blamed everything – including poor maintenance of their own harbour – on Vermuydens’ Denver Sluice.
Meanwhile, Arnold Spencer died with his business in financial trouble.His creditors took over but they had no interest in his river and this meant that the stretches above Earith were now also left unattended.The ports on this stretch (St. Ives, Huntingdon, Godmanchester, St.Neots and Great Barford) did not complain too much however because, for them, the opening of the straight and fast New Bedford River – sluices permitting – was a far quicker and shorter route to Lynn than the old River Great Ouse around Ely had been.
1674 Mr. Samuel Jammatt, who held a mortgage on Arnold Spencer’s business, took over the upper navigable stretches of the river from Spencer’s creditors. He leased the river to Henry Ashley for £160 and Ashley rebuilt some of the sluices while installing other brand new ones. Like Spencer, Ashley was enthusiastic about his business and was determined to extend the navigation to Bedford – though this was to take many years.
1680 When Jammatt died he left the river navigation to his sons John and Nathaniel. However, Nathaniel had no interest in the navigation and soon sold out to none other than Henry Ashley’s son, Henry Ashley junior, who gained ½ control of the river from St. Ives to Great Barford. Ashley junior did all he could to buy out John Jammatt as well but Jammatt was eager to hang on to his inheritance. Eventually however, Jammatt made an agreement with Ashley junior (which didn’t include a complete sell-out) and the Ashleys took full control of the navigation above Earith. (Ashley junior also went on to take control of the River Lark in 1700).
1687 Ashley senior was granted the right to make the River Great Ouse navigable to Bedford and within 2 years boats were able to enter the town, making the River Great Ouse navigable from Bedford to The Wash – a distance of 74 miles. However, below Earith the navigable route went via the New Bedford River rather than via the River Great Ouse around Ely where it was still often dry and was always badly silted.
1689 The newly opened stretch of river now meant there were 5 staunches and 10 sluices between Bedford and St. Ives. Staunches (or flash locks) were built with paddles and beams and were usually installed at shallow areas such as fords. Water would be allowed to build up and then would be released with great force carrying boats over the shallow stretch. Sluices were more like pound locks and would be installed at mill weirs to allow passage without great loss of mill water. Staunches were much cheaper than sluices but far less reliable and often dangerous – plus, of course, they only worked downstream with boats having to be dragged upstream. To compensate, staunch tolls were usually far cheaper than sluices. Other work completed on the new section included short-cuts which bypassed shallow or bendy stretches and the installation of a haling-way (towpath).
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1713 There was joy and optimism for the traders of Ely and the River Great Ouse tributaries when exceptionally high flooding inland caused so much water to be diverted along the drains that Denver Sluice blew up!! However, this was not good news for the town of Lynn below Denver as the river was now left to run wild and fierce past their town, making navigation incredibly difficult. Above the sluice it also made little difference overall. Boats could not move at all now during low tide but at least they were assured of movement everyday during the high tides which reached well upstream and along the tributaries.
1719 Henry Ashley junior, backed by local townsfolk and traders, obtained an Act allowing him to build a staunch at St. Ives.
He charged a reasonable toll of 1d (1 pre-decimalisation British penny) per chaldron of coal, load of grain or ton of other goods. However, further up stream the tolls at sluices which had been in place for many decades were 3 times higher.
Bedford and numerous other towns have a lot to thank the Ashleys for. Following their efforts to put Bedford on the waterways map, the town grew rapidly and became an inland port 74 miles away from the sea. St.Ives also became a large port and boat building became a major local industry. Humber Keels had used the river to bring coal from the north for centuries and this now extended to Bedford. In fact, the keels were still using the waterway over 100 years later when legislation was made to force railway companies to build their bridges with sufficient height to accommodate the keels’ masts.
1724 Following decades of discontent, the traders of (King’s) Lynn sponsored a survey of the tidal River Great Ouse. Colonel John Armstrong made a report which stated that the only sensible plan would be to restore the River Great Ouse above Denver Sluice to the navigable state it was in before Vermuydens’ drains were built. His report is not too surprising considering it was paid for by the town. Other men however, (some of them great engineers) were called in over the years but not many of them agreed with Armstrong’s findings. (Maybe these men were not paid by the tradesmen of King’s Lynn)!! One such man was John Smeaton who made a survey in 1766 and reported that Denver Sluice was not to blame for any of the problems around King’s Lynn. He said it was too far away from the town and the more likely cause of silting up and shifting sands was the low lying land, the width of the estuary and a large bend (Eau Brink) just above the town.
1748 After 35 years a new sluice was built at Denver by Charles Labelye. The new sluice was a much improved version which included a navigation lock but the navigators on the River Great Ouse were still far from happy. A new type of boat, the Fens Lighter, had to be built to navigate the shallow waters of the lower stretches. These were 42 feet long and 11 feet wide at deck level, though they narrowed to just one foot at the bottom. Despite being light they were very strong and could carry up to 25 tons. They could be sailed but were usually horse-drawn until steam arrived in the 1800’s. Towing horses often had to be a lot more lively than the plodding canal horse or mule. On the River Great Ouse fences often ran down to the water’s edge and stiles were usually preferred to gates so horses were trained to jump these obstacles on their own! Below Denver Sluice a different type of boatmen was employed to take goods along the more difficult tidal out fall into King’s Lynn and The Wash. These men were known as “berthsmen” and they would gather at Jenyns Arms pub at the Denver Sluice and wait for cargoes coming from the non-tidal waterways. They charged 10 shillings per trip for this “specialist” job but it often included arguments with local landowners who resented these (usually drunk) men and the towing-horses trudging across their land, often causing damage which was never paid for.
1777 With increasing amounts of lighters and other boats using the river, it was becoming more costly every year to maintain. Above Earith, Ashley Palmer (grandson of Henry Ashley junior) now owned the rights to the river and his income was just sufficient to run the business and carry out repairs. Below Earith however, the Bedford Level Corporation had never charged tolls and the damage to their waterway was also damaging their finances. They attempted to regulate traffic but complaints from traders meant their Bill failed to get through Parliament.
1789 The “berthsmen” (who used horses to pull boats along the river’s out fall from Denver Sluice to The Wash) had suffered years of difficulties with landowners around King’s Lynn who were not happy to allow the edge of their land to be used as a haling-way. This led to the Haling Act which created a commission of men who represented both the boatmen and the landowners. The commission began to charge tolls and out of this they would compensate the landowners for damage caused by the men and their horses. We can assume that these measures were successful as no further complaints were ever recorded.
1795 After half a century of discussions, the people of King’s Lynn finally “put their Act together” and were authorised to build a cut which would bypass Eau Brink, the large bend just above the town which caused many of their navigational problems – both on the river and in their harbour. The authorisation was known as the Eau Brink Act but rather than opening the door to a speedy resolution of their problems, the Act only served to cause more. For the next 2 decades arguments raged, a pamphleteer war began and numerous engineers became engaged in slanging matches! The strangest part of all this is that you would have thought that those with navigational interests (in view of all the difficulties) would have been totally in favour of the new cut but it was they who strongly opposed it while the Bedford Level Corporation helped to promote it. The navigators, of course, feared that a new cut would mean they were forced into paying higher tolls for its use. By now, even the people of King’s Lynn were getting cold (or maybe wet) feet as they now feared the cut may damage their harbour even more. Even those who supported the building of a cut could not agree with each other, arguments raged over its width and depth.
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1796 The Wisbech Canal opened along a line which had once been part of the Wellstream – the original (natural) route of the River Great Ouse before the first diversions were made in the middle ages.This new canal connected with Well Creek and created a link between the River Great Ouse at Salters Lode and the River Nene at Wisbech.
1800 A new threat came to the River Great Ouse when the Grand Junction Canal opened, connecting the West Midlands (and, a little later, the East Midlands) to London. It past just 10 miles west of Bedford and this, along with improved roads, meant coal could now reach Bedford from the Black Country and Derbyshire far cheaper than it could via the long distance coast and river route from Hull. Deliveries of River Great Ouse coal dropped by half over the next 2 decades.
1812 Numerous proposals were put forward to make the river navigable (or create a canal) to connect Bedford to the Grand Junction Canal. John Rennie was asked to make a survey and he estimated a cost of £180,807 for a 15 mile canal linking Bedford to Fenny Stratford on the Grand Junction. Unfortunately nobody felt they could afford this and nothing was done. In following years a number of other ideas were put forward but none were acted upon. These included the idea to link the upper River Great Ouse to the Newport Pagnell branch of the Grand Junction, another was to link the Ivel Navigation at Shefford to the Grand Junction and to the River Lee in Hertfordshire.
During the early years of the 1800’s the joint owners of the rights to the River Great Ouse between St. Ives and Bedford were now Sir Thomas Cullum, who inherited the rights from his aunt Susanna, the wife of Ashley Palmer, and John Francklin who’s wife was John Jammatt’s grand-daughter. Together they continued to upgrade the navigation. Sluices and staunches were rebuilt and modern style locks were installed. In 1843 Cullum bought and developed New Bedford Wharf and by the middle of the century he had spent thousands of pounds on the waterway.
1821 Meanwhile, all parties involved in the Eau Brink Cut agreed – or maybe just agreed to disagree – and John Rennie and Thomas Telford were employed to oversee the construction of the cut which was authorised by the passing of the Eau Brink Act. As well as work on the new cut, the Act also allowed the River Great Ouse to be improved by adding staunches, sluices or locks to a number of its tributaries.
Note: It is not made clear (in the books I have read) if this was John Rennie senior (who died later in the year) or his son (Sir) John Rennie. The son certainly worked on the Great Ouse in later years.
1825 The work was completed in 4 years but, despite it being built by two of Britain’s greatest engineers, it proved to be too narrow, the flow was not enough to move the sands in the estuary and silting in King’s Lynn harbour continued to get worse. Telford was called back and he recommended that the new channel should be widened.The extra cost was to be £33,000 taking the overall cost to over £500,000 for just 2½ miles of new waterway. In the end, it was the navigation interests who gained the most from the new cut. It eased their usage but did little to help King’s Lynn, the problems in the estuary or the drainage of the surrounding land.
1827 Further upstream the traders on the tributaries and lodes to the east of the River Great Ouse and River Cam were crying out for help. Thus, the South Level Drainage and Navigation Act was authorised.Work was carried out on the tributaries and dredging was carried out on the River Great Ouse from Hermitage Sluice to Littleport bridge. A new cut was created from below Ely to Sand Hill End, near Littleport, bypassing a meander through Prickwillow. The completed South Level Act (which included many other rivers as well as the River Great Ouse) was very expensive but proved to be very efficiently done.
1834 Following the “success” of Eau Brink Cut, John Rennie (junior) was asked to completely re-design Denver Sluice. It is his design which survives today with 2 sets of gates to allow it to cope with varying river levels and sea tides. It also has a navigational lock.
1836 The Old West River (Aldreth River) section of the River Great Ouse was dredged and for a few years this, together with the South Level works, brought renewed optimism. Sadly this was not to last.
1845 Railway competition began and over the next 5 years lines reached Ely, St. Ives, Huntingdon, King’s Lynn and St. Neots.
1846 The Norfolk Estuary Company was set up though its first plan was somewhat ambitious – to say the least. The new company intended to drain The Wash and reclaim the land. If the scheme had succeeded it would have completely changed the shape of eastern England but, of course, the scheme did not succeed. Instead, below King’s Lynn, they constructed Marsh Cut which finally narrowed the estuary to allow better navigation. Unfortunately this also had the side effect of lowering the water level in King’s Lynn harbour by over 3 feet and creating shoals in the estuary above the town.
1849 With railway competition growing, Cullum and Francklin desperately needed easy passage for boats heading to their higher sections of the river. The main navigational route for boats heading for the upper reaches of the river did not use the South Level improvements because Vermuydens’ New Bedford River (Hundred Foot Drain) was a much shorter route. However, the New Bedford River had never been maintained for navigation and by now it was silted so badly that even lighters, with as little as 3 feet draught, were encountering problems and could even be held up for weeks on end.
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1855 Desperate times call for desperate measures and the traders on the River Great Ouse were desperate not to lose out to the railways. They slashed the tolls on coal (which mainly came down the coast from the north east) and they built new wharves including a large interchange dock in Ely near to the brand new railway station. The dock held 200 boats which brought agricultural produce from the farms and villages to be sent by train to all parts of the country. Other smaller docks were built along the river at various towns and villages and it all seems to have been a good forward-looking idea which helped the river to survive alongside the railways. Interchanges meant that boats could “stay afloat” by being less dependant on wholly local trade and becoming providers to places far away from the Fens as well as delivering long distance goods to villages where there were no railways. This new outlook made the river around Ely busier than ever before.
The upper reaches of the river were not yet suffering (directly) from railway competition but it had been suffering a steady decline since the opening of cheaper coal routes ½ a century earlier. Sir Thomas Cullum died and Francklin attempted to buy Cullums’ share. However, Lady Cullums’ asking price of £14,000 was rejected by Francklin and she held on to her share.
1857 Railway competition reached Bedford when Great Northern Railway drove their main line through the town. Five years later another main line, this time from Cambridge, also reached Bedford. By this time, income from tolls had declined so badly that the navigation had become a liability. Various attempts were made to sell the business but it must have been a little embarrassing when even an auction failed to find a buyer.
1865 King’s Lynn Docks and Railway Company was formed, ensuring that the railways did not create their own terminals and bypass the town. Over the following decades new and larger docks were built and the town saw a steady increase in trade up till 1908.
1869 Mr. John Kirkham purchased the rights to the upper River Great Ouse navigation (including Bedford New Wharf) for the bargain basement price of £1,500. The bargain soon turned out to be more like a nightmare with income dropping at an alarming rate and virtually no boats reaching Bedford.
1875 Lack of maintenance on the upper navigation was blamed when surrounding land suffered from bad floods. Proposals were put forward to have the navigation abandoned and one proposal called for the government to set up a new drainage commission to take over the upper reaches – but the government did not have the finances to do this.
1876 Trade came to a complete halt on the upper navigation above Tempsford when the adjoining River Ivel Navigation closed. Soon after, it became pointless attempting to collect tolls above St. Neots as the cost to hang around waiting for boats was more than the income collected from them! Local authorities put the matter before the Board of Trade in the hope that a Conservancy Board would take over but nothing was done. Kirkham attempted to sell the navigation at an auction – but nobody turned up!
1880’s A surprising move took place when a newly set-up company, the Ouse River, Canal & Steam Navigation Ltd, bought the upper navigation from Kirkham and tried to obtain an Act to enable them to connect the River Great Ouse to the Grand Junction Canal. The proposal was defeated and the new company was left with an income of just £250 a year.
1893 Almost unbelievably, a Mr. L.T. Simpson bought the upper navigation for £6,170. Over the next 4 years he spent around £21,000 in repairs and upgrades, he bought lighters and tugs and formed the Ouse Transport Company. He was obviously an optimistic chap and his adverts optimistically quoted through-rates for deliveries to Bedford from various continental ports. Some people clearly believed in Simpson as a number of business owners began to order regular deliveries of coal, pig iron and other goods. Sadly, Simpson was on a hiding to nothing. He was rejected by Parliament when he attempted to draw up a new toll system. He was told there was nothing wrong with the one drawn up in the 1600’s!! Local authorities objected when he tried to increase charges for passage through the staunches which still stood at 1d.Worse opposition came when he tried to charge for passage of empty boats. The two-faced Bedford Corporation had recently used the river to receive materials to upgrade the town’s waterfront but now they too joined other local corporations in trying to get rid of Simpson.
1894 A previously quiet corporation, that of Godmanchester, suddenly joined the throng by claiming they should have the right to open or close the river sluices as flood levels dictated. During one particularly high flood they opened the sluices and damaged two locks.Simpson took them to court but never stood a chance of winning.
1898 With income at an all time low, Simpson – on the assumption that the navigation was his property – decided enough was enough and he nailed the locks up and removed parts of the sluices. The local authorities decided he had no right to do this – claiming a river should be a public right of way they took Simpson to the Chancery Court. The Chancery found in favour of the local authorities, saying that the river was not Simpson’s property. However, they also said he was under no obligation to maintain the navigation. You would expect that Simpson would be happy enough with this outcome but he decided to appeal on the grounds that if boats past his locks – which he had rightfully obtained and maintained – then he should be allowed to charge tolls. The appeal court decreed that Simpson had the right to charge tolls on loaded boats for passage through his locks providing he kept them properly maintained. He was told the tolls should be “reasonable” but should allow a profit to be obtained after maintenance and repairs. It is difficult to determine what outcome L.T. Simpson actually hoped to achieve as he was still unhappy and now took the case to Parliament.
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1900 Meanwhile, a new company, the St. Ives Transport Company, was set up and began to undercut the railways for carriage of goods to that town. They also wanted to trade with Bedford and encouraged Simpson to re-open his locks but he refused until his case was resolved.
1904 When Simpson’s case was eventually heard in Parliament, the Lords gave Simpson the right to close the locks! Lord MacNaghten commented that if the navigation was worth maintaining, it should be purchased from Mr. Simpson and placed under a statuary body.
1906 During this period a growing number of pleasure boats had begun to use the upper navigation but this was of no gain to Simpson who could not charge for boats holding no cargo! However, a River Ouse Locks Committee was set up and Simpson happily leased his locks to them. Nearly 2,000 pleasure boats past through in the first 3 months!This encouraged Simpson to try and sell his “assets”, asking £10,000 for the whole lock, stock and navigation! The Ouse Navigation Company was promoted, they hoped to run motor barges on the river, but they failed to raise the necessary cash and the river remained closed to commercial traffic.
1909 A report by the Royal Commission – on the overall state of the River Great Ouse, its tributaries and the Bedford Rivers – made interesting reading. It reported that the upper stretches could easily be reopened and maintained for commercial use. It also said that a link to the Grand Junction Canal should be constructed. It reported that, thanks mainly to the St. Ives Transport Company, there was still trade on the lower reaches of the route though this was greatly hampered by the poor state of the Bedford Rivers. On top of this, trade was further hampered by the continuing practice by local landowners to build their fences right to the water’s edge. Horses were still having to hurdle these fences and this made it impossible for boats from outside the local network to use the system as their horses had not had to learn such tricks! The report on the River Great Ouse between King’s Lynn and Ely was much better. Over the years since the South Level Act, a fair trade had continued. The report’s final paragraph was the most damming.It compared the Fenlands to Holland, saying that the Dutch successfully created waterways which were as efficient and numerous as their roads and yet in the equivalent English lowland the control of the waterways was chaotic. It is certainly true that elsewhere in England great waterways had crossed mountains and yet here, where navigation should have been easiest and more desirable than anywhere else, it had always been very difficult.
1918 Following WW1 the Ouse Drainage Board was set up but it had no jurisdiction over navigation.
1925 After WW1, road transport was developed in a big way and this caused a decline to the River Great Ouse and its tributaries which had continued to carry goods between isolated farms and villages and the railway interchanges. The downward trend was slowed down when a sugar beet factory opened at Queen Adelaide near Ely. The factory greatly depended on water transport and it operated 7 tugs and over a hundred barges.
1930 The Land Drainage Act was authorised and navigational problems on the upper navigation were finally addressed properly.Sadly, the problems facing the short tidal stretch north of Denver Sluice were not so fortunate. For decades the tidal stretches had suffered through being “controlled” by ½ a dozen or more governing bodies at the same time. This had made it impossible to get any major work started and maintenance was virtually none existent because none of the governing bodies could ever agree with each other. Things had got so bad that King’s Lynn Conservancy Board took it upon themselves to do a number of repairs. This started the ball rolling and a number of the other bodies followed suit over the next few years by making repairs and improvements.
1935 Surveys were made on the upper navigation and Simpson’s rights were purchased from his executors for just a few pounds. By this time there were no thoughts of commercial trade – all work would be for the benefit of pleasure boaters. All the locks from Earith to St. Neots were restored with guillotine gates replacing normal mitre gates in some places. When WW2 began work came to a halt and the top 10 miles to Bedford were left closed.
1948 The country’s waterways, railways and docks were nationalised, and in the case of King’s Lynn this turned out to be no bad thing. Improvements were made to the docks and trade increased.
1951 The Great Ouse Restoration Society was formed and began to raise money to rebuild locks and reopen the upper navigation to Bedford.
1959 The sugar beet factory at Queen Adelaide moved over to road transport and use of the River Great Ouse and its tributaries took an instant (commercial) nose-dive.
1963 The Great Ouse River Authority, who now looked after the river’s drainage, were given license to charge fees for boats using the locks. This gave them vital income, allowing them to help the restorers by maintaining the sections already open to pleasure craft.
1974 The last commercial boat to use the River Great Ouse was Shellfen, the smallest boat in Shell Oil’s massive fleet. It served the pumping stations on the river and was in great demand during winter when roads were impassable. Following this, the only non-pleasure craft on the navigation were river maintenance boats.
1976 The upper navigation restoration society opened the river to pleasure craft as far as Great Barford.
1978 The upper navigation was fully restored to Bedford and soon became very popular with pleasure boaters.
1995 After years of planning, the Bedford & Milton Keynes Canal Trust was formed and put forward a proposal for a £52m scheme to link the River Great Ouse to the Grand Union Canal. The scheme would need 35 locks and/or numerous aqueducts and would need to find a way through the M1 motorway. Back pumps would be needed at the locks as the summit level would be at the Grand Union Canal junction. However, it was hoped that a proposed national scheme using the canal network to send water from the north west to the Fens could be “tapped”. It was also hoped that BW may decide to help fund the building of a canal link as the canal would provide a “controlled” route for the water supply proposal. The canal would just be one part of an overall leisure amenity including water sports and a forest park. To give an idea of how useful the link would be to narrow boat users – Bedford is just 15 miles from the Grand Union Canal as the crow flies, but to travel by boat from the nearest canal (in Northampton) it is 162 miles to Bedford!!
1996 The £52m scheme to build a Grand Union Canal link was turned down so a new scaled down project costing “just” £21m was proposed and submitted for lottery funding. Ideas are also sometimes mooted about connecting the river to the Norfolk Broads (to the east) but such a scheme would also be a massive undertaking.
As well as the upper navigation of the River Great Ouse, the lower sections of the river and its many tributaries (River Lark, River Cam etc) are also open to pleasure craft. The New Bedford River can also still be used but it is under the control of drainage authorities who – just like in the earliest days – don’t appear to have a very high opinion of boats!!
Visit the Great Ouse Boating Association website http://www.goba.org.uk/
The River Great Ouse begins far beyond its navigable stretches. It first appears (as a named river) just south of Silverstone in Northamptonshire. It heads south west for 3 miles, running along the border between Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. At Brackley it turns east and for about 4 miles it runs along the border between Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Around 5 (meandering) miles further east the river passes through Buckingham.
For the next 6 miles the River Great Ouse heads generally north east, widening out as it goes, until it reaches the A5 near Stony Stratford.Throughout these 6 miles, the Buckingham Branch of the Grand Junction Canal runs parallel to the river, never more than a few hundred yards away to the north. Along this stretch the river once again runs along the border between Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. Less than a mile east of the A5 the river is crossed by an aqueduct (known as Great Ouse Aqueduct) which carries the Grand Union Canal between London and the Midlands. The iron trough aqueduct with stone pillars was built in 1811 to replace a brick structure which collapsed in 1808. Even earlier than that the canal came down to meet the River Great Ouse via 9 locks, allowing barges to cross the river on the level. The locks were removed because of the danger of floods. (To the south the canal passes through Old Wolverton and to the north it passes through Cosgrove).
Just past the aqueduct, the River Great Ouse is joined by the waters of the River Tove which enters from the north having coming from Towcester. The next 6 miles are very convoluted but generally the river heads north easterly to Newport Pagnell where it is joined by the River Ouzal (also called River Lovat). There used to be a canal branch from the Grand Union Canal into Newport Pagnell and at one time a scheme was proposed to join the canal branch to the river. This would have made the river part of the main inland waterways network but, as yet, it is still unnavigable in this region.
The River Great Ouse passes Newport Pagnell in a southerly direction but it quickly bends completely round to the left until it heads north west, passing itself just ¾ of a mile north of a previous stretch which is 4 miles back upstream! Past here the river takes on a slightly easier right turn until it faces north east and travels for 3 miles into the small town of Olney and then another 5 miles eastward to Turvey where it runs along the Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire border. It is only 6 miles from Turvey to Bedford via the A428, however, it takes the River Great Ouse another 26 (meandering) miles around the Bedfordshire countryside before it enters the county town.
North of Turvey the river strangely appears to regress from a fairly wide watercourse to something more like a large stream. It is obvious that if the river had ever been made navigable above Bedford, a rather substantial amount of it would have been either re-routed or bypassed by a canal cut.
In Bedford the navigable reaches officially begin although it is actually possible to navigate to Kempston Mill almost 2 miles above Bedford. The old “upper navigation” between Bedford and Earith now has 15 locks which have all been restored over the past 60 years. There cannot be many other stretches of water in the world that display such a wide variety of locks. The Upper River Great Ouse Navigation has narrow locks, wide locks, triangular shaped locks, top guillotine-gate locks, bottom guillotine-gate locks and combinations of all of these.The paddle gear and mechanisms are also different on many of the locks, giving the impression (rightly or wrongly?) that the restorers just grabbed whatever gear they could so long as it worked!
The first lock is in Bedford where there is an excellent waterfront and two “interesting” bridges. The Victorian one is pedestrian only and allows access to Longholme Island – one of the town’s parks. Opposite the park, the river is tree-lined and is floodlit in bonny colours at night.
Coming eastwards out of Bedford there appears to be more than one River Great Ouse as several courses travel side by side – sometimes with short connecting branches. Just one mile out of town is Fenlake which, apart from the lake, has a priory and country park, all surrounded by the River Great Ouse. On the north side of the lake is “New Cut” which appears to be unnavigable on my map though it was obviously built to bypass the long river bend around the south of the lake. This bend appears to be the current navigable route though on the bend another line of the River Great Ouse leaves the “main line” and takes an inside course between Fenlake and the navigable river. Half way around the river bend is a lock which links the current navigable river to the narrow-looking, bendy, inner-course, which could well have been the original line of the river around the lake, replaced by the sweeping bend which was itself later replaced by the “New Cut” to the north of the lake. (Maybe)?
Three miles further east is another fork in the river though – as before – the navigable stretch takes the longer course. Willington Lock is at the point where the two courses rejoin with Great Barford Lock just 1¾ miles further north east. For many years Great Barford was the head of navigation on the River Great Ouse. It was again when restorers reopened the river to pleasure craft in the 1970’s. The village was once a busy port but when I visited it in 1995 it was as quiet and picturesque as any country village. It has a long bridge of many arches stretching across the river and all along the north bank there are river “alcoves” forming small private marinas. Presumably some of these are former basins of the busy inland port. About 400 yards downstream from the arched bridge is the lock and a long footbridge which crosses the adjacent weir. Both weir and lock looked very new to me, and the large, metal lock beams and semi-automatic (hydraulic?) paddles worked with ease.
The next section is just 2½ miles long but it includes a series of tight zig-zag bends. At the end of the section is Tempsford Lock, below which the River Ivel arrives from the south having come from Sandy, this waterway was itself a busy commercial navigation (see the page on the River Ivel).
The River Great Ouse continues to meander north, under the A1 and on to St. Neots, a stretch of about 6 miles. North of the town there is another fork in the river with the navigable course (containing a lock) to the north. Continuing northwards the river passes Offord after 2½ miles and then comes close to Brampton after another 2½ miles. Here it bends east with a lock on the bend. After about 1½ mile in an easterly direction, the route turns north again and passes through a lock on the west side of Godmanchester. One mile further north is Huntingdon where the river heads north east for 1½ mile and then begins a long curve which, over the next 3 miles, ends with the river facing south. There is no straight section here at Hemingford Grey however because the route instantly curves left for 1½ miles until it faces north and then right for 2 miles until it is facing south. The river has now reached St. Ives where there are two locks and, spanning the river on 6 arches, a bridge which was built in 1415. On its central pier is a chapel – just one of many interesting sites in the town which, like Ely, pre-dates Norman times.
After twisting around St. Ives the River Great Ouse heads east and then north east, passing Brownshill Lock on route, on its 5 mile journey to Earith. Brownshill Lock is where the “upper navigation” ends and, somewhat surprisingly, the section below the lock is tidal. As I mentioned in the main text, the original River Great Ouse headed north out of Earith towards the south of March where it then curved east and met the River Cam. Today, 2 new waterways head off in a similar direction to the old river’s course though they are far from natural.These are Vermuydens’ Bedford Rivers, the newest of which is navigable but is governed by drainage authorities. As I also mentioned in the main text, the Aldreth River (or West River) used to run into the River Great Ouse at Earith, but when the main river was diverted in the 1200’s it took over the Aldreth River’s course, it also reversed the flow of the Aldreth River, changing it from westbound to eastbound!Access into the Aldreth River and back into the non-tidal sections of the River Great Ouse is gained through Hermitage Lock, which is just east of the junction with the New Bedford River. Parts of the Aldreth River (or Old West River) were also used by the Roman’s when they cut their artificial waterway, the Car Dyke, stretching from Cambridge to Lincoln. (#LINK See separate file for more info).
The River Great Ouse (Aldreth River in reverse) leaves Earith via a lock close to the B1050. The river heads south of east for 5 miles (passing about one mile south of Aldreth village) until it reaches the B1049. The river then turns north east, passing under the A10 after 1½ miles (at Efford Closes) and the A1123 after 3 miles (south east of Stretham). Half way between these 2 A-roads is Stretham Pumping Station which survives today on the north bank. The Aldreth River sees the start of flood banks along each side of the route, often blocking the view of the surrounding landscape. About one mile north east of the A1123 the Cambridge to Ely railway crosses over. Beyond the bridge, the river turns east for just ¼ of a mile to its confluence with the River Cam which arrives from the south having come from Cambridge. Before the people of Earith reversed the Aldreth River, the River Cam used to head north from Stretham to Ely and beyond. After the re-route in the 1200’s the River Cam north of Stretham became known as the River Great Ouse.(See the page on the River Cam).
Ely is just 3 miles north of the confluence of the rivers Cam and Great Ouse and its Cathedral dominates the view ahead even though the river is surrounded by flood banks. The tiny city is famous for being an “island” though it is certainly on dry land today. Its council was once the highest ranking in the country after the King and it was its own independent county until it became part of Cambridgeshire as recently as 1826. Another of Ely’s claims to fame is that it was the last place in England to hold out against William the Conqueror – staying defiant for many years after the Norman invasion. However, this also gives the city another, somewhat ironic, claim to fame – it is home to probably the most magnificent Norman architecture in England, including one of the country’s best cathedrals. Once the Normans eventually arrived – they certainly left their mark.
Compared with the wild meandering upstream, the River Great Ouse’s approach to Ely, its route through the town and its exit to the north are all incredibly straight with very smooth bends. This is because these stretches were straightened and improved several times over the centuries, especially around 1827 during the improvements under the “South Level Drainage and Navigation Act”. Unfortunately this leaves the view from the river rather restricting as the flood banks continue to block out the countryside. The straight lines last for 8 miles north of Ely, passing Littleport on route. The last 2½ miles of the straight section are followed closely by the equally straight A10, which clings to the east bank while a minor road clings to the west bank. The straight lines end as the River Great Ouse crosses the Cambridgeshire border into Norfolk. Brandon Creek is on the border and the River Little Ouse leaves the main line here, running along the county border and heading south east towards the town of Brandon (see the River Little Ouse page).
A bendy (though not meandering) 5 mile stretch follows until the River Wissey is met. It heads east towards Stoke Ferry (see the River Wissey” page for more info). From the junction, it is less than 2 miles further north to Denver Sluice and the end of the non-tidal navigation. This junction is one of the very few places in Britain where boats lock up onto a tidal stretch of water. The sluice itself is an amazing structure with water channels seeming to head off in all directions. The river is extremely easy to follow by car from Ely to Denver Sluice as there is always at least one road clinging to one of the banks.
The New Bedford River (or Hundred Foot Drain) joins the River Great Ouse at Denver Sluice having travelled about 18 miles absolutely dead straight in a north easterly direction from Earith. Just north of the sluice is another great waterway meeting place, Salters Lode, where Well Creek and the Old Bedford River also join the River Great Ouse.
The river has 2 separate channels running virtually side by side all the way north from Denver Sluice to King’s Lynn. The “original” river is the west of the 2 channels though even this has not always been a river. In the Middle Ages the rivers Great Ouse and Cam had headed off to the north west a little further upstream and the water which is now the River Great Ouse to the north of Denver Sluice was once nothing more than a small stream. The east channel of the route is a continuation of Eau Brink Cut which Telford and Rennie built further north in the 1820’s.
The town of Downham Market is just over one mile north of Denver Sluice with Stowbridge a further 2½ miles downstream. A further 3 miles north, the River Great Ouse takes on a great “bow” known as Eau Brink. The newer cut to the east heads straight on, for nearly 3 miles, to a spot about ¾ of a mile south of the A17 bridge. Here the east channel ends and runs into the west channel which then continues north for 2 miles to King’s Lynn.
The River Great Ouse passes King’s Lynn on the town’s western side.Just before reaching the town, the River Nar heads off to the south west. This was once navigable for 12 miles but has been disused for many years (see the River Nar page for info).
King’s Lynn harbour was once one of the busiest in Britain and the town had a number of water channels, known as Fleets, which allowed boats to travel into the town itself. North of King’s Lynn, the Great Ouse Estuary is much narrower than it was centuries ago. The shifting sands and shoals are no longer a big problem and the old traders at the harbour would marvel at the ingenious retaining walls in use today. The estuary stretches for 2 miles north of King’s Lynn taking the River Great Ouse into the sea at The Wash.
Visit the Great Ouse Boating Association website http://www.goba.org.uk/